“The Finest Hours” Movie Review


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     The filmmakers behind “The Finest Hours” likely smelled trouble when a more highly touted maritime period piece, “In the Heart of the Sea”, failed to attract movie goers in the prime holiday season this past December.  That film, based on the true story which inspired the novel “Moby-Dick”, boasted an equally as good cast and featured the tag line “From Academy Award Winning Director Ron Howard” with every television ad and trailer, but failed to gain any traction in the weeks prior to the “Star Wars” phenomenon taking over the hearts and minds of all who made movie plans in during the holidays.  With its late January premiere date, a time normally utilized as a studio dumping ground when people are more interested in catching up on the Oscar nominated films they have missed, the expectation level for a film like “The Finest Hours” may have been low to most outsiders, but with a reported $70 million price tag, you can be sure the producers were looking for an early year breakout hit. 

     To a certain extent, “The Finest Hours” has the necessary ingredients needed to prosper at anytime during the year.  The story takes us through a series of true events that occurred in February, 1952 off the coast of Cape Cod where a pair of oil tankers were literally split in half by the force of a horrific storm, leaving the men on board each ship in a desperate battle to survive.  A rescue team was able to immediately reach one of those vessels, the SS Fort Mercer, but the other, the SS Pendleton, drifted away and could not be found with the threat of massive waves standing between them and any rescue attempt originating from the mainland.  Director Craig Gillespie (“Million Dollar Arm”) and his screenwriters, Scott Silver, Eric Johnson, and Paul Tamasy (each of which were also credited with the screenplay for “The Fighter”), adapted Casey Sherman and Michael Tougias’ book which chronicles the rescue mission by the Coast Guard that was able to save 32 sailors from certain death as their failing back half of the ship was in grave danger of being overcome by water and eventually sinking before anyone could possibly find them.

     Chris Pine brings forth a thick Boston accent in order to play Bernie Webber, the true life member of the Coast Guard who led the rescue mission in a small boat not designed to navigate the treacherous 70 foot waves they would need to overcome in order to find the missing sailors.  Where the film stumbles is the needless dramatization of his courtship of Miriam (Holliday Grainger), as if the rescue story is not enough and we need to have a woman biting her nails on dry land, anxiously awaiting her man’s return.  You get the idea the filmmakers may have been going for that soft and glowing 1950’s love story that “Brooklyn” so elegantly told, but the relationship, likely to ensure the film’s running time remained under two hours, moves at the blink of an eye from a blind date to the talk of marriage in just a couple months.  And since Gillespie reserves the largest percentage of screen time for his well conceived action set pieces, it makes Miriam’s character feel as though she functions as an obligatory stand in, rather than a meaningful contributor.

     Aside from Bernie and Miriam’s budding relationship, there are essentially two stories being told, each with a key protagonist who faced incredible odds in order to ensure the survival of those in their charge.  Bernie, of course, is a member of the Coast Guard stationed at Cape Cod.  As the storm worsens and word comes in that the rescue crew who found the Fort Mercer is unable to find or get to the Pendleton, the station supervisor, Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana), orders Bernie to gather a four man crew and attempt to find the Pendleton, even though he is being advised by everyone that leaving the harbor is a suicide mission.  Meanwhile, the engine room boss on the broken in half Pendleton, Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck), is trying to figure out a way to keep the ship afloat in order to buy time for the rescue crew they hope if coming.  Gillespie and the filmmakers have constructed an engine room set that might remind you of the old “Backdraft” ride at Universal Studios with its multilevel unstable cat walks, fiery exploding barrels, and gallons of water being systematically dumped in as the actors constantly turn large wheels or tighten massive bolts with giant wrenches, all the while dodging flying debris and sharp edged steel beams which could kill any one of them instantly.  

     For the entire second half of the film, Gillespie cuts back and forth from scenes of Bernie attempting to somehow negotiate incredibly high waves in a boat more suited for calmer conditions and the aforementioned engine room scenes on the Pendleton as Ray and his men try desperately to keep the remains of their ship from sinking.  Through all of this, the filmmakers have achieved some nifty CGI shots that will remind you of both “Titanic” and “The Perfect Storm” as the scale of the Pendleton combined with the ferocity and destructiveness of the storm provide for an awe inspiring experience as the film builds to its conclusion.  And while Chris Pine’s accent may be a bit much, his performance is nonetheless effective, showing glimpses of the range he may possess after all .  

     Where Gillespie makes a mistake, especially in the third and final act, is the intercutting of an unneeded subplot that has Miriam driving all over Cape Cod and at one point confronting Cluff, as she desperately tries to convince herself that Bernie will make it back.  Problem is, based on what we have watched on screen at that point, there isn’t enough emotional heft found in her character or her relationship with Berne for us to care.  At that point, we’re more interested in the heroism taking place at sea, and not some manufactured romance done in similar fashion to Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor”.  We get that perhaps part of Bernie’s motivation for survival is to once again feel the embrace of Miriam, but it’s also clear he is driven by the will to perform his duties and save the men who are depending on him for their own chance at continuing to live.  Fortunately, Gillespie populates “The Finest Hours” with enough white knuckle suspense and meaningful action set pieces to overcome any missteps, creating a fitting a tribute to these real life heroes who are credited with the most daring Coast Guard rescue in history.  GRADE: B-